Myra Hiatt Kraft, who surrendered much of her privacy as a daughter and spouse in families led by powerful men, then turned that sacrifice into a philanthropic tool for public good, died of cancer today. She was 68.
Though reluctantly famous, Mrs. Kraft found a beneficent use for the name recognition that came with being married to Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, as they took their place among the ranks of Boston’s most influential and generous couples.
“You call someone, they get right back to you,” she told the Globe in 1997. “Even if they think you’re calling for money.”
And often she was. Never simply a boardroom benefactor, she staffed phone banks for fund-raising drives and made persuasive calls when a cause needed the kind of financial boost only the rich can provide.
“Words cannot express the deep sorrow that we feel in learning of the passing of Myra Hiatt Kraft,” the Patriots said in a statement. “Myra passed away early this morning after a courageous battle with cancer. We are all heartbroken. The global philanthropic community and the New England Patriots family have suffered a great loss.”
This afternoon, the Kraft family announced that public services will be held July 22 for Mrs. Kraft at the Temple Emmanuel, 385 Ward St. in Newton. The services are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.
The family also requested that in lieu of flowers, donations should be made in Mrs. Kraft’s name to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston’s Myra Kraft Giving Back Scholarship Fund.
Governor Deval Patrick called Mrs. Kraft “a pillar of our community and a beloved friend,” and said he and his wife, Diane, “will miss her warmth, wit and wisdom. Our condolences and love go out to Robert and the entire family.”
As a leader of organizations, Mrs. Kraft took a hands-on approach that helped redefine the philanthropist’s role in charities. Prone to asking piercing questions, she chaired the boards of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, which so valued her vision and drive that it waived term limits to keep her at the helm from 1996 to 2002.
“With her great heart and magnificent spirit, Myra lived her life in service to those who needed her help,” said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies. “She was more than an amazing volunteer leader -- Myra was also a beloved friend, and we will miss her dearly. Her personal acts of loving kindness were an essential part of who she was as a person. No one in need was ever turned away.”
Other boards on which she served included those for her alma mater, Brandeis University, and for The Boston Foundation, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the American Repertory Theater, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Facing History and Ourselves, a Holocaust education organization.
“She championed our efforts as the chair of our board of directors for the past two years and actively participated in our leadership since 2006,” said Michael Durkin, president and CEO of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “Myra insisted ‘that nonprofits be the very best and do the most for people in need in our community.’ While Myra will be deeply missed, her legacy of kindness to all will remain a beacon of hope in trying times.”
Bill Gabovitch, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said Mrs. Kraft “embodied the Jewish values of tzedakah and social justice through her charitable efforts on behalf of the Jewish community and the people of Greater Boston. She was a woman of great integrity and passion who saw challenges as opportunities and made a difference in the lives of people that she would never meet.”
So involved was Mrs. Kraft in philanthropy that perhaps her biggest worry when her husband bought the Patriots in 1994 was that the large sums of money spent and borrowed would curtail their charitable giving. He assured her they wouldn’t, she told the Globe in 2007. Instead, the family’s philanthropy increased along with the burgeoning financial resources of a successful sports franchise. As of March, Forbes magazine estimated the Kraft family’s net worth at $1.5 billion.
Along with several simultaneous memberships on boards, Mrs. Kraft had managed the Robert and Myra Kraft Family Foundation and the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation. The former contributed to Jewish groups and to medical, educational, and arts organizations, while the latter sent money to youth sports organizations, Catholic schools, and programs that help at-risk children.
Choosing recipients, she said, was simpler than one might imagine.
“I’m not looking for earth-shattering ideas,” Mrs. Kraft told the Globe in 2007, “but good programs that you know whatever you give them is going to be used well, and that it’s needed.”
The numerous recognitions Mrs. Kraft received for her charitable work included a Camille O. Cosby World of Children Award, presented by the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston.
“She was a remarkable person who graciously shared her intellect, energy, and resources to help many organizations and the people they serve, including Dana-Farber,” said Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., president of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The institute noted that Mrs. Kraft and her husband funded the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center, and the Kraft Family professorship in medicine at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber to support the work of Dr. Ken Anderson, whose research focuses on multiple myeloma. The Krafts also funded a community oncology and health disparities outreach program, and supported research on women’s cancers.
“I hope the Kraft family can find comfort knowing that their support of Dana-Farber has benefitted cancer patients worldwide and that it stands as a fitting testament to Myra and her commitment to help others,” Benz said.
Causes involving her Jewish heritage always were key among Mrs. Kraft’s priorities, and she often traveled to Israel a few times a year.
“The State of Israel has lost a great friend and a tireless advocate in Myra Kraft,” said Shai Bazak, consul general of Israel to New England. “Her light, generosity, compassion, and dedication will be missed by countless Israelis. Personally, her friendship and constant smile will be terribly missed in my life.”
Current and former players from both the Patriots and the New England Revolution offered condolences on Twitter, in interviews and in prepared statements, Globe staff writer Greg A. Bedard reports.
Former fullback Heath Evans used his Twitter account to write: “We have lost 1 of the greatest women I know & hands down the finest in all of sports w/ the passing of Mrs. Myra Kraft. What made Myra Kraft special? Strong but Tender-hearted/Proud but Humble/Bold but Soft-Spoken/ Extremely blessed but lived to be a Blessing.”
Mrs. Kraft inherited her passion for philanthropy early from her father, Jacob Hiatt, who escaped the rise of Nazism by emigrating from Lithuania in the mid-1930s. His parents, sisters, and brother perished in Nazi concentration camps.
The wealthy owner of a packaging company, Hiatt was one of Worcester’s greatest patrons of education, the arts, and religious causes, and Mrs. Kraft was emulating him in 1948 when she made her first foray into charitable work. She was only 5 when her father visited European camps for those displaced by World War II, then traveled to Palestine, which was on the cusp of becoming Israel. While he was away on his journey, she wanted to help at home.
“One morning I got up, took a bag, and decided to go out to the neighborhood to raise money for the poor children in Europe and Palestine,” she told the Jerusalem Post in 2008. “I went door to door. My mother was getting frantic because I was late and she had no idea where I was. I came in dragging this sack of money.”
By the time Mrs. Kraft was an adult, she measured contributions in the millions. Since marrying in 1963, Mrs. Kraft and her husband have given away more than $100 million to a spectrum of organizations involved in everything from changing lives in Israel to helping those hobbled by urban blight in Boston and Worcester.
She spent her own childhood and youth in parts of Worcester that were economically distant from the residents she later would help through philanthropy. She graduated in 1960 from the Bancroft School, an independent K-12 day school, where during her senior year, she wrote and directed “North Atlantic,” a play that poked fun at the musical “South Pacific.”
At Brandeis, she was a history major when she dined with friends one February evening in 1962 in the Back Bay delicatessen Ken’s in Copley Square. Robert Kraft walked in with his friends after a Columbia-Harvard basketball game.
“We wound up sitting next to her in this restaurant,” he told the Globe in 2007. “I had this big guy, Moose, find out her name, and then when she got up to leave, I winked at her, and she winked back.”
He drove to the Brandeis campus to find her. At first, she declined his request for a date because she had plans with her boyfriend, but “we wound up going out, and she proposed that night,” he said.
The Krafts married in June 1963, and the first of their four sons was born before she graduated a year later.
“Myra was a true Brandeisian,” said Frederick M. Lawrence, president of Brandeis. “She was the daughter of one of the visionary early leaders of Brandeis, a distinguished graduate, and a trustee who had a deep sense of the university as a community. She was always reaching out to students, faculty, and other trustees and served as a model to all of us in so many ways.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese said Mrs. Kraft was “a strong advocate for serving the less fortunate and, together with her husband Robert, they have been great supporters of worthy organizations like Catholic Charities. Her dedication and commitment to serving those in need and her willingness to enlist others in that important work will be greatly missed. We ask God to provide comfort to Robert and their family during their time of sorrow. We pray for Myra and give thanks for her life. May her memory be for a blessing.”
The Krafts have lived for years in an estate in the Brookline section of Chestnut Hill. The family also owns properties on Popponesset Island in Mashpee. Elton John provided the entertainment when the couple held their 40th anniversary party in Gillette Stadium in 2003, serenading the couple with “Moon River” as their wedding photo was displayed on giant TV screens.
“I realize that it’s a privilege,” Mrs. Kraft said, in the 2007 interview, about the perks of wealth and her extensive charity work. “And I don’t want to abuse the privilege.”
The family consolidated its holdings into the Kraft Group. Robert is the founder, chairman, and CEO of the organization. The couple’s oldest son, Jonathan, is president and chief operating officer. The next oldest, Daniel, is president-international. Josh, is president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, and the youngest, David, also works with the Kraft Group.
Mrs. Kraft also leaves a sister, Janice, and eight grandchildren.
Football, not surprisingly, was of more interest to Mrs. Kraft’s husband and sons when the family purchased the Patriots. Somewhat wary at first, she gradually learned about the game by asking questions “and every year my knowledge increased,” she told the Jerusalem Post in 2008. “Now I absolutely love it. I had thought it was just a brutal stupid sport. Actually it’s layered and complex. You have to be very, very smart to play it and to coach it. It’s a brilliant sport. It’s like strategizing a war -- the way chess is.”
Ultimately, though, Mrs. Kraft believed that, with the exception of family, she was defined by the uncounted hours she worked with charities.
“It’s easy to write a check,” she told the Globe in 2007. “But this is what I look at as what my occupation is. I don’t know how to play bridge, nor do I want to learn how to play bridge. This is what I do.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.